Can the GCC Survive the Qatar Crisis?

The GCC in more harmonious times

by Derek Davison 

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the diplomatic crisis surrounding Qatar and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It was on June 5, 2017, that four nations—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt—cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar and declared an air, sea, and land blockade against the Gulf state. The internationally recognized government of Yemen as well as the Maldives also joined in the blockade, and since then Comoros and Mauritania have joined as well, while a small number of other nations have downgraded their diplomatic ties with Qatar without severing them entirely.

The rationale behind the blockade is murky. The Saudis and Emiratis made several demands of Qatar over its alleged support for terrorists, its Al Jazeera news network, and its friendly relations with Iran. However, subsequent events suggest strongly that the Saudis aimed to engineer the ouster of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The effect of the blockade has been mixed, at best. Though Donald Trump was initially an enthusiastic supporter, the US has largely soured on the blockade, which involves close allies on both sides and works against Washington’s aims in the Gulf. Trump’s most recent remarks about Qatar have been effusive in their praise.

Fallout from the Blockade

Meanwhile, the Qataris have adjusted. They’ve developed new domestic capabilities to replace lost imports from the blockading nations. They’ve forged a close alliance with Turkey that both protects the emirate from any potential Saudi military aggression and gives Turkey new diplomatic access into the Gulf. They’ve even, ironically, strengthened their ties with Iran, which has become a major source of food for Qatar and whose airspace has become vital to Qatar Airways’ continued operations. Qataris met the one-year anniversary of the blockade with defiance, officially banning imports from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and with popular support for Sheikh Tamim seemingly stronger than ever.

Although Qatar seems, so far at least, to have weathered the blockade relatively unscathed, the same cannot be said for the GCC. The 37-year-old bloc has been effectively torn in half by the blockade, with the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrain all participating while Kuwait and Oman have urged reconciliation (and are possibly wondering if they’ll be targeted next). Its December 2017 summit, held in Kuwait, encapsulated the new Gulf reality, with Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim being the only head of state to attend apart from Kuwait’s own Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Sabah. What was to be a two-day affair was cut short after a single uncomfortable session, with Sheikh Sabah arguing that the council needed to change its structure “to better face challenges.”

The GCC’s 2017 meeting was overshadowed by a pre-summit announcement that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were planning to form a new bilateral committee—one that threatens to overshadow the broken GCC if the Qatar impasse cannot be resolved. That body, the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Committee, held its first meeting in Jeddah on June 6, conveniently timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Qatar crisis. It builds upon the close personal bond between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, a relationship that is, for better or worse, coming to dominate the Middle East.

Does the GCC Have a Future?

Panelists at the Gulf International Forum’s June 7 panel discussion, “The US and the Gulf Dispute,” in Washington were not optimistic about the GCC. Ambassador Anne Patterson, former assistant secretary of Near Eastern and North African Affairs in the Obama administration, argued that the GCC “is pretty much finished”:

There may be some face-saving agreements to paper over the differences, but it will never be the same. This is very unfortunate, because successive American administrations have looked to the GCC as an island of stability in the Middle East. And while the GCC hasn’t ever reached its potential for mutual self-defense, its importance for regional security was certainly not zero and its largely unheralded economic successes are not insignificant. The breakup of the GCC certainly undermines US security interests in the Gulf, but the United States is an $18 trillion economy with a worldwide military presence. More importantly, I think, the collapse of the GCC puts GCC countries at greater risk, certainly from Iran, but also from other outside players who are once again playing a role in the region.

Baker Institute fellow and LobeLog contributor Kristian Coates Ulrichsen concurred, arguing that the new Saudi-Emirati council sounded the GCC’s death knell:

I think what we saw happen yesterday, when the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, went to Saudi Arabia, met with Mohammad bin Salman, his counterpart the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and they declared bilaterally the new Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council—not only do we have to get used to a new acronym, SECC, but I think that probably signifies the end of any lingering hopes that, as Ambassador Patterson said, the GCC could be anything other than an entity that’s more or less finished.

However, David Des Roches of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies sounded slightly less convinced that the GCC is really dead, at least insofar as its bureaucratic apparatus is concerned:

I don’t think the GCC is dead. I’ve spent much of my career as a bureaucrat and I can tell you that bureaucratic organizations never really entirely go away. They tend to go into hibernation, and they can reemerge. I drove past the GCC headquarters building—there was no “for sale” sign, it is not being turned into an ice rink. And it can be just as effective after a political decision is made as it was before. A low bar, I grant you, but the potential is there.

But in terms of effectiveness, the GCC seems to have been thoroughly crippled by the Qatar blockade, which, as Ulrichsen suggested, has highlighted a level of dysfunction that runs much deeper than this single issue. Despite their purpose of fostering Gulf cooperation, the GCC’s internal mechanisms allowed serious tensions between its members to fester and have been unable to do much to solve the ensuing crisis. Ulrichsen said:

Unfortunately, if one looks at this crisis from a “negative towards the GCC” point of view, one would see that at every stage of this crisis the GCC has been completely absent. The initial grievances that built up, that were then communicated or at least came out into the open on June 5 of last year, were not dealt with through any GCC mechanism. The list of 13 [Saudi and Emirati] demands that are almost so maximalist as to be absurd were, again, communicated not through the GCC… [As for] mediation, we saw the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah, doing an energetic round of shuttle diplomacy in the early weeks of the crisis, and I think the most we can say is that he prevented the crisis from getting any worse. As he noted when he met with President Trump in September, “What’s important is that we stopped military action.”

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.